The silence of the religious liberals

Public opinion polls show there are as many Americans who call themselves religious liberals as who call themselves religious conservatives.

Yet religion has come to be identified with conservatism, and liberalism has come to be identified with atheism and recularism.

Paul Rasor

Paul Rasor

Paul Rasor in his book, RECLAIMING PROPHETIC WITNESS: Liberal Religion in the Public Square (2012), blames the timidity of religious liberals.

We religious liberals don’t always preach what we practice, and this is especially true of us Unitarian Universalists, the quintessential religious liberals.

Rasor, who is a professor of religion and a UU himself, said religious liberals are shy about expressing our religious values in public.  When we take a stand on a public issue, our rhetoric is no different from any progressive or civil rights group.  We argue on practical, legal and ethical grounds, but not on religious grounds—unlike our counterparts on the religious right.

Why is this?

  1. Liberal religion is a big tent and we Unitarian Universalists have the biggest tent of all, even though there are a small number of us under it.  Since UUs have no formal creed, and other liberal churches leave a wide scope for interpretation, it is hard to to make a tight link between our principles and specific political issues.
  2. Religious liberals historically have been devoted to separation of church and state, and we feel uncomfortable mixing religion and politics.
  3. Religion can be a conversation stopper.  If someone is speaking on the basis of faith rather than reason, it is hard to for those who don’t share that faith to know what to say.
  4. Religious liberals aren’t comfortable arguing about religion.  We look for things we have in common with people of other religions rather than try to prove they’re wrong.

Rasor said religious liberals need to get over this reluctance.  If our religion does not inspire our moral beliefs, including our political beliefs, why speak in the name of religion at all?

It is important to be able to make a case on factual and pragmatic grounds, but it takes more to inspire people.  It takes words and deed that manifest something they can believe in.

It is necessary to present a religious alternative not only to the so-called religious right, Rasor said, but to creeds such as American exceptionalism and free-market fundamentalism, which are quasi-religious in nature.

American exceptionalism conflates love of country with love of God, so that we treat the nation (that is, ourselves) as perfect and criticism as blasphemy.  Free-market fundamentalism defines the capitalist free market as the ultimate value, which makes government, by definition, evil.

Patriotism and individual freedom are good things.  The harm comes from taking human things—a nation and an economic system—and treating them as if they were divine.

Liberal religion sees divinity in many things and finds divinity in many sources.


Democracy and Empire by Paul Rasor for UUWorld.

Can You Be Both a Religious Liberal and a Political Conservative? by Carl Gregg for Patheos.  [Added 3/20/2015]

Politics of American churches and religions in one graph – Corner of Church and State. A chart positioning American religious groups in terms of their predominant political beliefs.  UUs are near the lower left, advocating government services but opposed to government regulating morality.

Education and age divide American religion – 44 religious groups in one graph – Corner of Church and State.  A chart positioning American religious groups in terms of their average age and educational level.  UUs are near the upper right, elderly and well-educated.

Tags: , , ,

2 Responses to “The silence of the religious liberals”

  1. Notes To Ponder Says:

    Thank you for an excellent post and perspective.


  2. Perette Barella Says:

    I think this is an instance of a common pattern: those who think something is a good idea and advocate for it, versus those who disagree but believe others are entitled to their opinions. The problem is those in favor keep promoting their idea, slowly gaining traction and winning converts to their idea; while the opposition will express their dissent when asked, they don’t do anything to stop the promotors from continuing their promotion.

    I first encountered this in Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto, in which he describes it as the problem with technology: you can fight it off this year, but next year the pro-tech zealots will be back again, pushing the technology as the solution for everything—because they believe if we all adopted a pro-technology attitude, all problems would go away.

    But the same thing happens with separation of church and state vs. religious tolerance: you can fight off a religiously-motivated campaign that’s trying to set up some law based on religion, but they keep coming back. Religious tolerance prevents us really attacking their ideas and dismissing them permanently; try to do this, and the pluralists (usually liberals) declare you’re being a intolerant, a bigot against these people’s free right of religious expression.

    It’s the same pattern here. Fundamentalists believe they are right, and that all will be well when everyone else is a fundie. Religious liberals don’t agree, but they are restrained in their pushback because the fundamentalists are entitled to their opinion.

    This pattern means that given time, those willing to push an agenda will always win over those who disagree, but do not feel it appropriate to push back against the agenda.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: